Everglades clean-up on backburner, but there's hope

Early edition

Published January 19, 2007

ORLANDO — It’s billions of dollars more expensive than expected, 10 years behind schedule and the governmental partnership formed to build it is on the verge of unraveling.

Yet advocates of the floundering Everglades restoration project say they’re hopeful that new leadership in Tallahassee and Washington will finally get the world’s largest environmental rescue back on track.

With a new governor who has a good environmental record and a new party in charge of Congress, said Audubon of Florida conservation director Eric Draper, “it’s a completely new game here.”

Leaders of the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of 45 pro-restoration environmental groups including 1000 Friends of Florida and the League of Women Voters, got an added boost Friday when they found out Gov. Charlie Crist will deliver the keynote speech tonight. Crist’s staff had initially said the new governor was too busy.

The last time a newly sworn-in governor attended a coalition meeting was 1999, when Jeb Bush showed up 12 days after his inauguration to pledge his support for Everglades restoration. The following year, Congress and the Legislature approved the project, then priced at $7.8-billion and expected to take 30 years.

But the federal-state partnership, which was supposed to split the job 50-50, drifted apart. State lawmakers, at the behest of sugar industry lobbyists, extended the deadline for cleaning up water pollution in the Everglades by 10 years. That angered Congress, which failed to come up with the money to keep the federal side moving.

In 2004, Bush launched a state program called Acceler8 to push forward on some of the restoration projects anyway, using state money.

However, environmental groups criticized the choice of projects, noting that they seemed more likely to fuel South Florida’s sprawl rather than help the environment.

The state has spent $90-million as of last month, and its progress has led to talk that maybe the state doesn’t need its federal partner.

“Because Congress hasn’t come up with the money, some members of the Legislature have been talking about taking a different approach, an independent approach,” said Terence “Rock” Salt, the Interior Department’s top Everglades policy expert. “That would be awful if that were to happen.”

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been waiting for money and authorization from Congress to start work, land and construction costs have been going up. The new price tag is nearing $11-billion.

“Every year that goes by, the money we have buys less acreage and every year that goes by, the money we have builds less projects,” said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, which is spearheading the Acceler8 program.

Meanwhile the project’s delays have already pushed some of the restoration’s most crucial components back by 10 years, according to a report released last September by the National Research Council.

“Time is not on our side,” said Mark Perry, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition.

Congress’ new Democratic leaders have promised to move quickly on a bill authorizing the corps to get to work, said April Gromnicki, Audubon’s assistant governmental relations director in Washington.

However, Gromnicki said, Florida’s new Republican governor is likely to face an obstacle in dealing with the federal side that his predecessor never did: a cool reception from the White House.

While Bush was governor, he could easily call his brother the president. Crist, during his successful election campaign, skipped a visit by President Bush to Pensacola that was supposed to help his candidacy. The snub “might be a problem,” Gromnicki said.

For now, though, at least outwardly, relations between the Everglades partners seems more harmonious than before. A year ago, state and federal leaders meeting in West Palm Beach to talk about the future of Everglades restoration wound up yelling at each other in frustration.

On Friday, state and federal leaders were paying each other compliments about the level of cooperation.

“We need to work as a team,” said Col. Paul Grosskruger, the new commander of the corps in Florida. “We’re sharing information and feedback, to make sure we get restoration right.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.